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Ask the RD

Question: Am I correct in saying that folate is the same as folic acid? I’ve seen and heard both terms used but want to make sure.

Answer: The fact that grain products are fortified is probably why the terminology is confusing. Folate is the generic term for the B vitamin naturally found in foods. Folic acid is the form of the vitamin that is added to fortified foods and multivitamins.

Because adequate folate intake is very important for women of child-bearing age, in 1996 the FDA published regulations requiring the addition of folic acid to grain products to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in newborns. When you read “fortified with essential vitamins” on food labels or see a list of fortified vitamins between parentheses in ingredient lists, it’s a result of the 1996 requirement.

Adequate folate levels can only be achieved through our diet. We need folate for a variety
of functions, ranging from DNA synthesis and repair to cell division and growth. Besides being linked to neural tube defects, a folate deficiency can cause macrocytic anemia and an increased risk of heart disease.

While our bodies can absorb and utilize both forms, it may be a surprise to hear that folic acid is more efficiently absorbed. Folate, the type found naturally in foods, must be converted by the body into folic acid during digestion before it can be absorbed. Because folic acid is more readily available to the body, it is the form used in supplements and fortification. An inter- esting fact about folate: It gets its name from the Latin word folium, which means leaf. What is probably not so surprising is that dark-green leafy vegetables are a rich source of natural folate.

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